9. Irish Migration

‘No Irish – No Blacks – No Dogs’

. . . is also the title of a book by a well known Irish musician called John Joseph Lydon of the Sex Pistols (1975 to 1978), who grew up in Holloway in the 1970s. Growing up there myself, and being slightly younger than John Lydon, news would travel fast when alter ego Johnny Rotten was in town to visit his younger brother. Kids my age saw punk and the skinhead culture as anarchistic and racist. They were times when the generation above me went out ‘paki bashing’.

Two decades earlier, Holloway, Finsbury Park and Archway, all in Islington, had seen rapidly expanding Irish communities. Racism against the Irish was unapologetic and indeed not illegal until the Race Relations Act 1968 which strengthened the Race Relations Act 1965 to cover employment and housing and which would be repealed by the Race Relations Act 1976 creating the Commission for Racial Equality.

Nevertheless ‘No Irish’ was a common caveat and even throughout the 1970s racism and racist ideas were out in the open and did not subside until after the Margaret Thatcher years.

The routes across the Irish Sea led to Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol and the greatest concentrations of Irish are found around these areas, and London. Estate agents feared that letting and selling properties to non-whites and the Irish would affect sales because these types were seen as the poorest and would therefore lower the tone.

A comparison can be made also with the rookeries of old London that exemplified the poorest communities with the very worst living conditions and ever simmering criminal activities.

Some writers have stated that these prohibitive window signs were non-existent, and that it is a myth put out by ethnic groups, modelled on the 1950s Civil Rights Movement for Blacks in America, but there is sufficient evidence from old newspapers and furthermore in the report ‘Discrimination and the Irish Community in Britain’ published by the Commission for Racial Equality in 1997.

There is numerous oral evidence from Caribbean and Irish migrants about racial discrimination and tensions and prejudice against them is a well documented historical fact. Therefore we know that following World War II signs turning away the Irish and black ethnics were commonplace in the windows of lodgings and on job hoardings outside work establishments.

Many immigrants regarded London as their final destination after completing the move to a UK terminal. This had been the case through time, however 1951 saw the least number of Irish in London for eighty years; there were just under 270,000 Irish-born people in London, the lowest figure recorded since 1871 when the number was just under 318,000. In fact the numbers have been declining since 1931 to the present day.

The Irish want to go back to Ireland, and much the same is seen by Caribbeans that still have strong ties moving back to the Caribbean. Irish and Caribbean migrations since the 1950s share some similarities having answered the call to fill the labour shortage following World War II. Both Irish and Caribbean women propped up the National Health Service and population numbers have been comparable, for example Islington recorded 5% Irish and 5% Black Caribbean in the 2011 census.


There has been a long history of Irish migration, forming an important part of populations around the world, for example along the East coast of America and in Australia. The significant London population dates from at least the early seventeenth century. In the 1790s Ireland’s population was around five million and many predominantly from Ulster were encouraged to move to the northwest of England where there was a shortage of native handloom weavers.

The transition to new manufacturing processes took place in the period between circa 1760 to 1820, known as the Industrial Revolution. They sought to prosper from Britain’s textile success. Sir William Henry Perkin from his home in Cable Street in the East End of London discovered the first synthetic dye mauveine in 1856, which led the way to the British chemical industry.

In the North West the largest concentrations of Irish were in the metal and chemical industries, notably Liverpool, Runcorn and Widnes where 21% of the UK’s chemical industry resides to the present day. The modern steel industry also began in the late 1850s when bulk production of steel began as a result of Henry Bessemer’s development of the Bessemer converter in 1857.

Further north in Scotland, where shipbuilding was the mainstay of world production during the Industrial Revolution, the Irish settled in Glasgow and Dundee where shipbuilding was the main commercial industry. Shipbuilding along the River Clyde goes as far back as possibly as early as the 15th century and it wasn’t until after World War II that the shipping industry went into decline.

And further south in London the Irish went to fill agricultural labouring jobs, appreciating that three quarters of immigrants were unskilled and solely experienced in farming.

As early as the start of the nineteenth century it is estimated that the Irish formed one third of the poor in London. Many joined the army as an alternative to poverty and returned from the Napoleonic Wars only to find themselves destitute. By 1830 the Irish accounted for more than 40% of the British Army and following the Industrial Revolution the strain of uncontrolled immigration and returning soldiers was beginning to take effect.

In Victorian times England had strengthened through the Industrial Revolution, it was when the railways and many canals were built, and many Irish were navvies that helped to build them. It’s fair to attribute a large part of the success of the Industrial Revolution to Irish workers who had been moving earth to carve out the canals since the 1780s and laying railway tracks since the 1830s and of course there were the roads and other construction projects too.

The first wave of mass migration following the Irish famine sparked anti-Irish riots for many years. Notwithstanding the significant contribution they made to the Industrial Revolution, the prejudice was around religion, being that the Irish were Roman Catholics and England had a long history of purging catholicism.


The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was one of the most significant legislation in British history. It grouped parishes together into ‘unions’ of which each union had to provide a workhouse.

Prior to 1834, poverty relief was left to local parishes and was not seen as a social problem. It was accepted that charitable works were the responsibility of godly institutions and not a burden to be carried by the better off, whose taxes were better used elsewhere.

Edwin Chadwick was one of the people behind the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, and secretary of the Poor Law Commissioners. The new poor law and the new commissioners distanced themselves from physical and mental health issues having any connection with poverty, in their dogged determination to eliminate pauperism. Someone that had worked a full life could end up on retirement day as a pauper.

The new poor law placed legal responsibilities in the hands of parishes that had hitherto become cruel and inefficient having been left to their own devices. It was a highly unpopular Act on both sides of the fence.

A tighter grip on the parishes brought to surface, or rather dragged to the pit, those vagrants that did not qualify for poor help which in turn narrowed the consensus for fixing the problem with one sweeping solution; the Poor Law Removal Act which would come in 1847 was aimed at clearing away those that did not qualify for help under the new poor law.

And that’s exactly how it was, the poor and destitute as well as soldiers and sailors returning from service, found themselves living on the streets only to be whisked up by parish officials and shipped back to Ireland. This was the meaning of ‘removal’.

It was an accepted principle at the time because until 1905 there were no controls on immigration, so people came and went as they pleased, which was the cause for most of the riots and disorder of the times as communities blamed outsiders for their misfortunes.

However individual cities and parishes were able to control their local population by granting the freedom of the city. Persons that did not live in that area had no right to drive cattle through it or indeed gain employment. This situation created suburb areas around the boundaries, for example Spitafields just outside the East gate of London where thriving industries grew.

The workhouse, it was believed, would be utilised by the needy and rejected by the idle. In this way workhouses acted as filters for those who were in real need aside from those that had no ability or inclination to improve their lot by physical work.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries (refer to the section on Religion for more about this,) Henry VIII gave a former Greyfriars monastery on Newgate Street to the City of London for the relief of the poor. The institution of the workhouses had began. For most of the four hundred years that followed, these were places feared and hated by ordinary folk. The Victorian age left us the legacy of the great workhouse buildings.

A workhouse stood where St Mary’s wing at the Whittington is now and a workhouse infirmary stood where the smallpox building is. In present St John’s Way stood the St Mary Workhouse site at 129 St John’s Road. St Mary being the name of the parish. And in Cornwallis Road, Islington secured a spill-over workhouse. There were several other workhouses in Islington, most notably at Clerkenwell, but the one in St John’s Road was considered the grandest of all.

After 1900 conditions improved. Workhouse infirmaries were among the best hospitals in the country. At the Islington workhouse might be found Irish stew on the menu. However as the workhouse culture faded away, they became known as public assistance institutions and were intended to provide temporary accommodation for homeless people.

These temporary homes for the homeless served that purpose, but in the gruelling spirit of their history, they remained dank places right up until the early nineteen-seventies. They were more like prisons and families lived with the threat that they would be turfed out at the slightest infringement of the strict rules. The children attending local schools were thought of as gypsies by other more fortunate children.

Islington workhouse. The building opposite the Royal Oak on St John’s Way junction with Hazelville Road.

This is an old map of St John’s Way, called St John’s Road back then. Clearly seen is the Islington Workhouse in plot 14 and the nearby Alexandra Orphanage.

Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish social commentator (1795 – 1881) who stated the following in 1839, which reflected the common held view of the well off:

“The New Poor Law is an announcement that whosoever will not work ought not to live.”

Obviously ‘philanthropist’ is not a word one should append to his long list of occupations. Health, and the welfare of the poor and the masses in general were issues that would also need resolving in due course, following the Removal Act, and it came in the form of the 1848 Public Health Act.

The new poor law was enforced in the south but took longer in the north where opposition to it was strongest. The north, where the Industrial Revolution had boomed now blamed the new poor act for the decline of industry.

Administrators in the north took the view that few able bodied people were destitute when so much work was readily available and that if work subsided then a few workhouses could not hold the numbers that would need them. Therefore implementation of the law in the north was widely obstructed by arguing that there was no need to construct workhouses that could not do the job when most required.

However, as the country struggled to lay a uniform law to address pauperism, the ‘Hungry Forties’ hit the industrial north. By 1839 there was a serious slump in trade which caused growing unemployment. Failed harvests led to suffering and a potato failure across Northern Europe restricted the food supply.

The existing Corn Laws kept bread at an artificially high price and yet there was worse to follow as a potato blight swept across Northern Europe reaching England, Scotland and Ireland in 1845 and returning in 1846 to cause the Irish famine and Scottish famine when many people starved due to the lack of a staple food source.

In addition to the 100,000 deaths from famine in Europe, a further one million died in Ireland. The major cause for the mass migration was due to the Irish potato famine (1845-1849) which saw the Irish make up 4.5 per cent of people living in London.

The largest numbers of Irish went to the north where the iron and steel works are, where the chemicals are made, through the docks of Manchester and Liverpool.

In 2001 there were 674,786 Irish-born in England (1.4 per cent of the population), the greatest concentration of Irish-born anywhere in the world and equivalent to 12.1% of the population of the Republic of Ireland (5.6 million in 2001).


Whilst secretary of the Poor Law Commissioners, Edwin Chadwick wrote a report titled ‘The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Commissioners’. It argued that sanitary conditions caused social problems but was rejected by the Commissioners who did not agree with the notion of a connection between poverty and health issues.

Liverpool’s first public health officer, Dr William Henry Duncan, in 1847 estimated that 60,000 people caught typhus and 40,000 contracted dysentery in that year. In just five months of 1847, some 300,000 destitute Irish people arrived in the docks and in June it led to the Poor Law Removal Act 1847.

Despite what would seem to be obvious connections between poverty and declining health, nothing was done even following Edwin Chadwick’s revelations that slum conditions wherever they be, affected other areas.

At a time when England was moving into long term depression and the starving Irish were migrating due to famine, the Poor Law Removal Act was introduced to harshly control immigration by denying any charitable and financial help provided by workhouses under the Poor Law Act, to able bodied persons. The poor law system and workhouse conditions were made deliberately harsh to discourage people from successfully claiming poor relief.

Following the findings of Edwin Chadwick et al, the first public health act in the UK was passed in 1848. The Public Health Act 1848 established a board of health to improve sanitation which put it in charge of water supply, sewage, cleansing and environmental health regulation.

Liverpool received the vast influx of Irish immigrants and under the new Poor Law Removal Act, in 1847 it deported 15,000 Irish back to Ireland. The London boroughs were to collect unemployed able bodied persons and return them to Ireland, be they immigrants or returning British Army soldiers. Albeit still by 1851 more than 22% of Liverpool’s population were Irish-born.

The top three cities with the largest Irish-born populations in 1851:

London		108,548 (4.6%)
Liverpool 83,813 (22.3%)
Manchester 52,504 (13.1%)

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 had built upon the existing poor law and was aimed at providing workhouses for the poor to get off the streets. It was all about keeping the poor out of sight and dealing with the problem with the least cost.

Women of an unknown workhouse.

The daily timetable was generally this:

6:00		Rise
6:30–7:00 Breakfast
7:00–12:00 Work
12:00-13:00 Dinner
13:00-18:00 Work
18:00-19:00 Supper
20:00 Bedtime

Therefore when the Irish arrived on these shores, and when they were most desperate in their history, they found no welcome mat, only the reality of a nation transitioning from the Age of Enlightenment to the Victorian era.

By the time of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, Irish communities had been established in London for over two hundred years. The squalid conditions and poverty made their contribution to crime significant with Irish involvement in criminal gangs dating to the early 1700s.

The poorest areas formed into slum estates that were often off-limits to government officials in a similar way that the high density estates of today are no-go areas for police or others after dark. Rookeries as they were known, were home to disease, squalidness and crime.

Between 1800 and 1850 the population of England doubled, in large part due to Irish immigrants fleeing the famine. Those times also saw a major increase in the urban population that were attracted by work in factories. In 1801 70% of the population lived in rural areas while in 1851 it had dropped to 49%.

This meant for London that a population of one million at the turn of the nineteenth century, more than quadrupled by 1881. British cities struggled to cope with the influxes and slums were the inevitable outcome.

The term ‘slum’ was not known then, rather the term ‘rookeries’ had been introduced by the Reverend Thomas Beames as an analogy because rooks like to build their nests close to other rooks’ nests, and form a close-knit colony called a rookery.

In 1852 Rev Beames witnessed the extreme poverty in London. He surveyed six districs and found dire living conditions. He published a book called The Rookeries of London that outlined three of these districts: St Giles, Saffron Hill and Bermondsey; and he reached the same conclusion as Edwin Chadwick had – that living conditions had a direct impact on the lifestyle of people and on crime that affected other areas.

Despite the work opportunities that the Irish came over for, they suffered racial tensions and bigotry which virtually excluded them from better paid jobs and social progression. They were effectively denied the support others received from the Poor Law.

They were willing to take on gruelling work in the harshest of environments. Much of the least healthy and most dangerous jobs recruited a disproportionate number of Irish and Irish communities grew around Whitechapel, Poplar, Southwark, Kensington, and Islington. By the time of Rev Beames’ research, one five bedroom house without fresh water or toilet was recorded as housing eighty-eight Irish immigrants.

Nevertheless they became alehouse owners and ran lodging houses in the poorest areas providing cheap accommodation for their own kind. Hard work didn’t always mean low pay, Irish silk weavers in the East End were skilled and reasonably well paid when there was work.

Unfortunately the history of the silk weaving industry is one of fighting off foreign competition and immigrant transit workers known as journeymen.


Spitafields had been a centre of silk weaving since the early fifteenth century, the first industrial suburb of London and a virtual border between affluence and poverty. Following a decline in the Irish linen industry in the 1730s, Irish weavers came to Spitafields to take up silk production and build the nearby docks.

The main competitors for Spitalfields cloth were from India and France. In the 1720s the industry had fought off calico sellers (dyed and patterned cloth from India) which had become fashionable and was blamed for reducing demand in silk, wool and cotton. So high import duties were imposed on the importation of foreign silks.

Silk weavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629, now it was making a great effort to punish the smuggling of French cloth. The weavers themselves were criticised in the press and portrayed as drunkards and louts. There were many weavers’ alehouses in the area, at least eight different pubs called the Weavers Arms.

It was French immigrants, the Huguenots, that dominated the population and industry in the East End, there being about 500 master weavers in 1700 and at least nine Huguenot churches which supported new arrivals including the Irish, and found them work and lodgings. In 1709 Parliament passed a law naturalising the French Huguenots as English citizens; but the Irish remained outcasts of society. The Huguenots brought new methods of textile working and set up silk and lace factories. Some historians say Huguenots kick-started the Industrial Revolution in England.

Employers in Spitafields preferred to hire Irish workers because being the poorest of people they readily accepted low wages. The Irish were mostly underpaid by as much as half the pay of others. In addition they suffered racial violence from resentful English weavers who in 1736 argued that Irish workers had undercut their wages. Serious fighting broke out over a couple of days involving knives and guns until it ended with seventeen badly wounded on both sides and one English boy shot dead.

By 1769 it all boiled over into a period of unrest known as the Spitafields Riots. Irish weavers found it hard to compete with cheap French imports and it was the beginning of the end for Irish silk weaving.

In 1831 the population of Spitalfields was around 100,000, of which 50,000 were entirely dependent on the silk manufacture, and the remaining more or less dependent indirectly. There were still 17,000 looms in operation at the end of the 1830s, but a free trade treaty with France in 1860 was the final straw for Spitalfields silk trade due to cheap imports. Silk production moved elsewhere to be replaced by poor Jews from Amsterdam, whose specialist trade was the manufacture of cigars and cigarettes.

Brushfield Street, south side, showing houses of 1780s. Photo courtesy: British History Online

The decline of Spitafields left it poverty-stricken and over-populated. For centuries it was known for drinking, disorder and poverty. The huge factories that had housed weavers’ looms turned into slums. Here grew the rookeries of London that Rev Meade wrote about and which Charles Dickens portrayed in his works; the poverty, the slums, the crime, and the jews – Oliver, Bill Sykes, Fagin.

Indeed Rev Beames made reference to Oliver Twist, suggesting that the novel had described the true reality of living conditions of the times. Spitalfields became one of the poorest, dirtiest, most unhealthy and crime-ridden areas of any city in the world.

Henry Mayhew was a journalist (founder of the magazine Punch) and best known for ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ a book based on letters he wrote to the London Morning Chronicle in 1849–50 around interviews with people in Bethnal Green and Spitalfields in the 1840s.

His writings influenced Charles Dickens and other writers and he was an advocate of reform. But as today with ‘fake news’ in his day there was a need for reliable reporting and Mayhew was that source.

An Irishwoman who worked as a street seller talking to Henry Mayhew:

I sleep at a lodging-house, and it’s a dacint place. It’s mostly my own counthry-women that’s in it … I live on brid, and ‘taties and salt, and a herrin’ sometimes. I niver taste beer, and not often tay, but I sit here all day, and I feel the hunger this day and that day.”

David Bartlett, author of London by Day and Night, visited Spitalfields in 1852 and found that:

in street after street there is nothing but the most disgusting, the most beseeching poverty. There are thousands of men and women there who never have known what plenty is, what pure joy is, but are herded together, thieves, prostitutes, robbers and working-men, in frightful masses. You meet beggars at every step; at night the streets are crowded with wretched women.

It wasn’t until the 1860s that slum housing was addressed and replaced with better dwellings.

During the early 1900s many Irish worked as market traders and street vendors or ‘hawking’ i.e. selling goods informally in public places. It was the largest category of work for Irish women in Scotland, in 1911 accounting for nearly 9% of working females. In the 1850s around 10,000 Irish men and women worked as street vendors in London with many in construction and as labourers and porters.


Since the mass migration peak of 1851 the numbers of Irish have fallen year on year until recent years when the number of people arriving is now lower than those moving to the Republic of Ireland. In 2018, just 11,400 people arrived compared with 20,100 people that moved to Ireland.

In 1901 there were just 60,000 Irish-born in the UK. In 2001 they were the largest foreign-born group in the UK making up 1.2% of those living in England and Wales with around a third living in London.

In the 1950s half a million Irish immigrants arrived in England following years of economic stagnation in Ireland. But since 2008, just 165,100 people have arrived which is still more immigrants than the number which have come from Australia and Canada combined over the same period.

Since the Irish economy began to recover in 2013 following their destruction by the EU, people have been moving back. This doesn’t mean the Irish presence is diminishing and will soon vanish. Their descendants born in the UK will always remain integrated into UK culture – e.g. the London Irish.

The Annual Population Survey carried out by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2018 listed the Irish-born population for the UK at 380,000 with an estimated 42 per cent being over the age of 65. It would suggest that many Irish-born would prefer to return to Ireland following retirement.


In the 1850s the Irish population of Islington and Highbury was 6,000. During the second wave of migration in the 1950s Irish immigrants created enclaves with an Irish club or pub to socialise; books were available with advise on how to make the move to London and survive it. More recently the importance of these centres has diminished and new arrivals have social media groups and seek assistance from organisations like the London Irish Centre in Camden.

Islington’s hubs were Holloway, Finsbury Park and Archway. Many migrant communities settled at Finsbury Park after World War II but it changed from a largely Irish area to an Afro-Caribbean one and in recent years has become a Somalian area.

The Archway which has a history of medical and healthcare establishments, attracted Irish nurses in the 1960s at the Whittington Hospital. The Irish nurses attended Mass every Sunday morning at St Joseph’s church as well as the many construction workers who built the houses and roads. Building contractors would hire Irish workers from the pubs along Junction Road.

St Joseph’s Retreat had and still has a community club, which was for many years referred to informally as the Irish Centre. It had day activities like Irish dancing lessons and in the evenings the bar opened and the dance floor came alive. The Irish of Archway had this place to socialise and the Gresham just down the hill provided a place to continue drinking and dancing afterwards. During the heyday of London’s Irish dancehalls in the 1980s there was: The Buffalo in Camden Town, the Forum in Kentish Town, and the Gresham on Upper Holloway.

Whereas Kilburn was associated with lodgings for the Irish, Archway became entangled with Irish politics after the election of Michael O’Halloran as MP for Islington North in 1969. He called his supporters the Irish mafia. There was some air to the notion of Irish political activism during the 1980s when Sinn Fein propaganda was at times distributed outside the Gresham at weekends.

The Lion and the Archway Tavern served until the early hours. Western Union had an office at the side of the Archway Tavern which the Irish used to send money back home. It was reputedly used to filter the proceeds of fund raisers, pay-day loans, and so-called Sunday afternoon lock-ins with all proceeds destined for the IRA. And right up until The Lion closed down, you could drink until 4am with a mix of Irish and paramilitary music being played.

Today the Irish still form a large presence in Archway. Islington is the second-smallest borough in London and the third-smallest district in England. It has the second highest proportion of Irish people in the country, behind the London Borough of Brent. Yet it is the most densely populated borough in the UK – 13,875 people per square kilometre (2011 census). Irish residents made up 5.7% in 2001, 5% in 2011 and 3.9% at present.

Despite the times, a 2017 study by Trust for London and the New Policy Institute found that a third of Islington residents still live in poverty.

– Who built the Holloway Road.